Tan Lay Heong uses trash to get people thinking

Tan Lay Heong uses trash to get people thinking

As she prepares for her George Town Festival exhibition, Tan Lay Heong speaks to us about the power of theatre to change minds, plastic use, and fake forests.

By Tho Mun Yi

Starting her artistic pursuit relatively late, Lay Heong was 31 when she enrolled in a fine arts course at a local university. Coupled with her keen interest in drama and stage performance since secondary school, Lay Heong quickly found her footing as an installation artist and eventually moved into set and stage design.

Set design for Folk Tunes of Teochew concert

Early in her career, Lay Heong, like any other budding visual artist, bought her materials from the local art supplies stores. That all changed in December 2015, when she got involved in a project that altered her perspective on where she sourced her art materials.

“Art can be very wasteful. Most pieces are used once and then thrown away. In my artworks now, I try as much as possible to source my materials from reusable waste like used cardboard, plastic bags, etc.” she says.

Designing with recycled materials on the set of Bow Wow
Recycled cardboard used at the Mangrove: Rediscover + Reconnect exhibition

Every new piece of art presents a distinct set of challenges for her. Using reusable wastes, she must conceptualize not only the final desired outcome but also the processes and techniques involved to transform these materials to get to that final desired outcome.

“The process can be quite painful because I deal with a lot of failures before perfecting the techniques. I experiment a lot,” she explains.

Installation art consisting of reused table fan covers and plastic

A lot of the waste produced by us is from one-time use of things such as the packaging of products. We barely use these items and dispose of them without any further thought.

The work undertaken by Lay Heong to create art from these items is not an easy feat. However, the impact that she makes from her persistence in creating art in this form is extremely meaningful.

Lay Heong’s efforts in using reusable materials began in December 2015 when she and a group of her friends decided to form the Plasticity Theatre Troupe. The troupe staged a non-verbal shadow play using only rubbish to create the sets and puppets, and only ambient music to convey the content of the show.

“I did not realise the influence this show had until December 2018. A family who watched our show the year before revisited us at that time. The mother of a young girl told me that the message from our show was on her daughter’s mind the whole year. The young girl would practice reusing and recycling her waste too. The show made a huge impression on her,” Lay Heong recalls with a smile.

A scene from Plastic City
Puppet and set design for Plasticity Theatre Troupe

Lay Heong reflects that humans used to occupy the same space as animals and plants. Physically, all were on the same level and humans only took what was needed for survival.

“But as humans became smarter, we elevated our levels from other life forms. As we continue to progress, this elevated level gets higher and higher, wider and wider, pushing the other life forms into tight corners.”

Her artwork triggers further thought about our roles and responsibilities as the more intelligent species. An irresponsible action can set off consequences that hurt the environment beyond repair. Her labour-intensive remaking of a fake forest for her upcoming George Town Festival exhibition shows how hard and impossible it is to recreate what was originally given to humans by mother nature.

Work in progress – A Real Fake Forest

Titled A Real Fake Forest, her experiential exhibition, no doubt influenced by her set design work,  will also be accompanied by a sharing session discussing the possibilities of creative reuse and upcycling. Lay Heong hopes to get people thinking about the balance between human consumption and the effects of it on the environment. Hopefully, like that young girl she inspired, some will walk away with changed views about our social responsibility towards nature.

Photos courtesy of Tan Lay Heong

Tho Mun Yi is a fulltime technical writer with a creative writing side hustle.